WINCHESTER -- Paige Mills is a shining example of what can be done with an opportunity, however late in the game it may come.
The former Sherando High School basketball standout is playing her fourth and final season at Randolph-Macon College, and the consistent minutes that had never really been there before are finally coming for the 5-foot-10 forward.
"I was playing a little bit," Mills said. "We had a starter on our team leave, so I talked with coach [Carroll LaHaye] and I decided I was going to step up and I was going to do whatever I needed to do to help my team win. I stepped up my defense, I worked really hard in practice, and I think it's worked out really well."
Mills made her fourth straight start of the season in Tuesday's 86-77 road victory at Old Dominion Athletic Conference rival Shenandoah, and delivered her customary gritty effort each and every time she was on the floor for the Yellow Jackets. In 18 minutes, Mills tallied four points, five rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot as an important part of R-MC's defensive effort.
"I felt really good about my play," Mills said. "I was getting rebounds and doing my job."
LaHaye is getting used to that kind of across-the-board production from Mills, who has been averaging double-digit minutes the last seven games after playing sparingly earlier in the season. This is Mills' first chance to start on a regular basis, and so far so good for the Yellow Jackets.
"When I looked at the stats and saw that she only had five rebounds, I thought, 'Wow, that must be a misprint,' because I thought she came up with some key rebounds for us at the points that we needed them, and a couple of stops as well," LaHaye said.
It might have been a road game for the Yellow Jackets, but Mills felt right at home at Shenandoah's Shingleton Gymnasium. That makes sense, considering a sizable contingent of fans were on hand especially for her. That made getting the start even sweeter for Mills, who got perhaps the loudest welcome of any player from the crowd when she took the floor during player introductions.
"Oh yeah, I can hear the cheers," Mills said. "It's nice being able to play in front of my friends and family that normally don't get to see me play. I try my best no matter what, but it's always nice to play in front of some friendly crowds."
Call it coincidence if you want, but the Yellow Jackets have won four straight since Mills became a starter this season. Randolph-Macon (17-5, 10-3 ODAC) ranks among the conference's top teams, and is the highest-scoring squad in the league. There's a double-edged nature to that, though -- the Yellow Jackets also give up more points on average than any team in the ODAC.
Mills, whose four-point outing against the Hornets upped her season scoring average to 1.1 points per game, won't help out much with the scoring. That's not really her game, and not really what her team needs anyway.
"I'm not a flashy player by any standards, but I do what needs to be done," Mills said. "My role is defense and rebounding, and if you get those things done then minutes go up."
LaHaye said Mills has provided a lift as a tough defender and rebounder for a team in need of both this season.
"Paige has definitely risen to the occasion," LaHaye said. "I'm very proud of her, and disappointed that it's her senior year. She's really coming on strong as we close out the end of this regular season."
It's been a long grind for Mills, but she's right where she wants to be with the Yellow Jackets.
"There have been ups and downs, just like anything anybody ever does, but I really think I've come into being the best I've ever been my senior year," Mills said. "I feel like I've peaked at the right time. Basketball is a really vigorous sport, and it's taken its toll. But I've played through all the injuries and all the setbacks, and I've come out on top."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>